Defining the US Strategic Interest
A modern, vitalized, and militarized China of 400 million people is going to be a threat not only to Japan, but also to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean. China will be a continental power of huge dimensions in control of a large section of the littoral of that middle sea. Her geographic position will be similar to that of the United States in regard to the American Mediterranean. When China becomes strong, her present economic penetration in that region will undoubtedly take on political overtones...If the balance of power in the Far East is to be preserved in the future as well as in the present, the United States will have to adopt a similar protective policy toward Japan [as it provided to Europe]. (Nicholas Spykman, 1942)
The top national interest of a state depends on the position that it assumes in the international system. In turn, the position of that state in the system depends exclusively on the relative military power the state has vis-à-vis other states in the system and on the political will to acquire and exercise it. In the case of the US, it is arguably the most powerful military force in the world, and it is often referred to as the sole superpower or the hegemon.
The US officially assumed the role of the hegemon of the Western Hegemon with the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, and it has been acting as such since then. For example, the US invoked the Monroe Doctrine in 1904 through the Roosevelt Corollary to prevent European powers from interfering in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. The US also invoked the doctrine during WWII by systematically interfering in the affairs of other states in an attempt to keep European powers away from the hemisphere. This policy became more aggressive during the Cold War as the US was fighting against the spread of Soviet influence in the hemisphere. The Cuban missile crises of 1962 is just one perfect example of this hegemonic policy. The Monroe Doctrine was later revived by President Donald Trump when he declared in his annual speech to the UN General Assembly that “It has been the formal policy of our country since President Monroe that we reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere.”
Today, the US is recognized as the leader of the international system in both the political and economic domains. This status was also recognized by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, when he stated that America is a great power – today probably the only superpower.
Being the only superpower in the international system dictates the top national interest of the US, which is preventing the emergence of a peer competitor in any region of the world. Fear of and suspicions about other states’ intentions cause the US to act preemptively and aggressively toward other great powers. On the other side, these great powers view the American hegemony as a threat to their own sovereignty. Because great powers fear and distrust each other, they view global hegemony as the ideal way to guarantee their survival. For this reason, all great powers first aspire to become regional hegemons in their own hemispheres and then expand their influence around the world in an attempt to become global hegemons. Because this fear of all toward all eventually leads to “war of all against all” and because no great power can become a global hegemon, as John J. Mearsheimer argues, the world is destined to be a theater of the tragedy of great power politics.
In this theater, the US has the advantage of being the dominant power. However, this prestigious status in the international system comes with a heavy price as other great powers, in trying to ensure their survival, have no other choice but to challenge American primacy in every corner of the globe whenever possible. As a result, being a superpower is at the same time the tragedy of US foreign policy. The US is left with no choice but to fight aspiring hegemons with any means at its disposal in every corner of the world. From the tragedy of Athens to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, the world’s dominant powers have risen and fallen. From the threat of the Nazi Germany during WWII and of the Soviet Union during the Cold War to the fear of the Chinese expansion of our era, the US has no choice but to fight for its survival.
The Quest for a Grand Strategy
In order to prolong its primacy and ensure survival, the US will have to define the most effective and efficient grand strategy. Generally speaking, US foreign policy experts are divided into two main camps. In the first camp are those who support US retrenchment and oppose the strategy of global hegemony. This camp includes two subgroups: the progressives and the realists. Being concerned about the price of primacy, the progressives argue that “the US should abandon the quest for armed primacy in favor of protecting and creating more opportunity for more people”. Their position is identical to the doctrine of international neo-liberalism minus the quest to spread democracy around the world. Instead of spreading democracy through primacy, the progressives argue that the US should cooperate with emerging powers like China and Russia to deal with more important issues, such as climate change and poverty.
The realists agree with the progressives that the US should withdraw from the global stage; however, they disagree with the reasons for such a decision. The realists argue that the US, especially after the Cold War, has overstretched its military power around the world, making itself vulnerable to the rising powers. Most realists argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union demand a recalibration of US foreign policy and implementation of new strategies. One of their main arguments is that the US military is suffering a crisis of strategy.
On the other side are those who favor the strategy of US global primacy. Being concerned about the folly of retrenchment, they argue that the withdrawal of US leadership from the international stage would worsen regional security competition in Europe and Asia, promote the proliferation of nuclear weapons, heighten nationalism and xenophobia, and increase regional instability.
The neo-liberal perspective arguing in favor of cooperation with raising powers is not only misguided but also dangerous for the US. The case of China is the best proof of how dangerous this perspective can be. Most experts agree, and statistics show, that China’s economy started to soar soon after its admission into the World Trade Organization and the beginning of trade cooperation with US corporations. To make the matter worse, China has maintained a statist system at the domestic level by prioritizing its state interests. This system has made it easy for China to convert its economic gains into state military power to become an expansionist power not only regionally but also globally. In the other camp, the experts in favor of global primacy are aware of the important position that the US has in the international system and how US hegemony helps maintain peace around the world. However, they fail to differentiate between pursuing US primacy and pursuing global peace. Pursuing global peace for the sake of it can be very dangerous especially if it diminishes the power of the US vis-à-vis the raising powers like China.
Geography and Grand Strategy
While the position of the US in the international system dictates its top national security interest to prevent the emergence of any aspiring hegemon, its geography dictates how that objective needs to be achieved. As Nicholas Spykman used to say that “Geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent.” As an insular state surrounded by oceans in a distant location from great powers, the US is well-positioned to defend itself and to maximize its resources to effectively act as an offshore balancer to balance power in every region of the world. The many advantages of insularity are highlighted in details in this recent study.
Thus, offshore balancing is the US grand strategy. Offshore balancing is about the US understanding and prioritizing its own national security interests and identifying the best strategies to serve those interests. The grand strategy of offshore balancing can be implemented through three of the following strategies: (1) buck/burden-passing, (2) coalition building, and (3) direct balancing. Buck-passing is the innate and the ideal strategy of any state. Throughout history, individual states have always tried to have other states carry the burden of containing a national security threat. The US is no exception.
The US needs to pursue buck-passing for three interrelated reasons. First, it would contain the threat without depleting its own the resources. Second, by doing so, the US would remain strong to confront other threats in the region. Third, in addition to containing the threat and keeping its power intact, the US would diminish the power of other regional states that have the potential to emerge as threats in the future. The success of the buck-passing strategy depends on the power fragmentation of the region and the distance from the threat. The less fragmented a region and the closer to the threat, the less likely for buck-passing to occur. On the other side, the more fragmented a region and the farther away the threat, the highly the probability for buck-passing to succeed.
In addition to being geostrategically expedient, buck passing is also a moral strategy. For example, if the US had not passed the buck to European powers during WWI, it would have been weak in confronting Germany during WWII. Also, if the US had not initially passed the buck to the Soviet Union and other European states to contain the Nazi Germany, the US would have diminished its own power while preserving that of the Soviet Union, and as a result, it would have lost the Cold War. In addition, if the US had not passed the buck to regional states and build coalitions (i.e. the NATO, The Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty Organization in 1954, and The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955) to contain Soviet expansion during the Cold War, it would have depleted its military power and would have become less powerful to contain Chinese expansion today. In a few words, in an international system that consistently produces evil, it is also a moral duty for the US to pursue its national interests first.
However, depending on the nature and significance of the threat, buck-passing alone may not always succeed. The Nazi Germany expansion during WWII and the Soviet expansion during the Cold War are just the two latest examples. When buck-passing does not work or is not expected to work, the US will need to combine buck-passing with the strategy of coalition building, bringing regional states together in coalitions to contain the threat. Being a distant insular state makes the US an attractive security partner for states located in [especially] geopolitically crowded neighborhoods. Because regional states can easily project power against other neighboring states, they fear fear each. Because they fear each other more than they fear the distant US, they are by nature inclined to cooperate with the latter to balance any regional threat. Thus, its insular geographic location makes it easy for the US to also build regional coalitions to encounter an emerging threat.
When a threat is immense and cannot be contained even through coalition building, the US will have no other choice but to use its military might to destroy the threat. These kind of threats are rare. The best example was the threat of Nazi Germany during WWII. Initially, the US was reluctant to enter the war and relied on European powers to contain the threat. As part of this strategy, under the Lend-Lease policy, the US provided economic and military assistance to the Allies, including also the Soviet Union, in the fight against the threat. When the European powers failed to contain the threat and after Japan and then Germany formally declared war on the US, the latter had no choice to intervene with its own military power. Another similar example was the Soviet conquest of and expansion in Europe soon after WWII, which led to the Cold War.
The Rise of China and the Myth of the Thucydides’ Trap
There should be no doubt that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has emerged as the aspiring regional hegemon, threatening US primacy in every region of the world. Hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of books and articles have been already written about the rise of China and its likelihood to replace the US as a dominant power. In 1942, in the middle of WWII, Nicholas Spykman predicted the following:
A modern, vitalized, and militarized China of 400 million people is going to be a threat not only to Japan, but also to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean. China will be a continental power of huge dimensions in control of a large section of the littoral of that middle sea. Her geographic position will be similar to that of the United States in regard to the American Mediterranean. When China becomes strong, her present economic penetration in that region will undoubtedly take on political overtones...If the balance of power in the Far East is to be preserved in the future as well as in the present, the United States will have to adopt a similar protective policy toward Japan [as it provided to Europe].
There are also some experts who argue that China and the US are on the verge of a military conflict over global dominance. They claim that China and the US are in a Thucydides’ Trap and destined for war. This claim is premature because it ignores two crucial interrelated factors: geography and regional balance of power. Athens and Sparta were in a Thucydides’ Trap due to their geographic proximity to each other and the absence of other regional states willing and able to contain the Spartan expansion.
This is not the case with China and the US today. First, being thousands of miles apart from each other makes military conflict less probable compared to the probability if both states shared land borders. On top of this geographic factor, for China to dominate the world, it must first dominate its own region like the US has been dominating the Western Hemisphere or, at least, like the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union controlled their region during WWII and the Cold War, respectively. The world has never seen an empire or hegemon dominating the world without dominating its own region first. This means that China must dominate Russia, India, Japan, and other regional states before dominating the distant US and the world. In this context, all regional powers will fear an expansionist China and will very likely join forces together and will cooperate with the US to contain the threat. In a few words, the quest of China to dominate the world, is indeed a suicidal mission.
Nevertheless, the top national interest of the US today is preventing the emergence of China as a regional hegemon and spreading its influence around the world. Whatever the US does internationally is and needs to be in service of containing China just like it did with Nazi Germany during WWII and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Other interests, such as fighting terrorism, maintaining regional and global peace, combating climate change and global poverty, and preventing the rise of nationalism and xenophobia may be important; however, they are secondary interests and must never be exercised at the expense of the US national security interests. The national security interest are supreme to any conflicting interest. This is the supremacy doctrine of US foreign policy.
The Obama administration was the first to formally recognize China as the main threat to US national interests and to argue that the time had come for the US to Pivot to Asia. In an article written for Foreign Policy in October 2011, then-the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that the future of [global] politics will be decided in Asia and that the US had a strategic interest to maintain peace and security in the region and ensure transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players.
As part of the grand strategy to balance China, the US has relied heavily on buck-passing by empowering regional states to contain the threat. For this reason, throughout his presidency, Obama improved the relationships with regional states. He eased the relationship with Russia and kept it as such even after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea. In addition, Obama increased cooperation with India. In 2010, in addition to an economic and financial partnership, the US and India engaged in a strategic dialogue, and the US even supported the India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Overall, President Obama viewed the US-India relationship as one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century, guided by convergent national interests. Moreover, as part of the strategy to empower regional states to contain China, Obama decided to arms embargo against Vietnam.
Like Obama, Trump pursued the same strategy by increasing the support for Russia and India. He has also expanded it by trying to bring even North Korea on board. During his last visit to India, Trump announced that the US and India have agreed on $3 billion military equipment sale in an attempt to balance the weight of China in the region. Unlike Obama, however, Trump believed in economic warfare – war in the grammar of commerce – to decrease the economic power of China through tariffs and domestic subsidies. He was also more vociferous and public about the Chinese threat, undressing US foreign policy and even diplomacy from any liberal clothing. If China ever becomes powerful enough to dominate India, Russia, Japan, and/or other regional states, then the US will likely proceed by creating a regional alliance like the NATO.
In conclusion, the top national security interest that drives US foreign policy is preventing the emergence of a hegemonic power whose ultimate objective would be the “encirclement” and destruction of the US. As an insular state, the US relies on the grand strategy of offshore balancing to achieve this interest. It does so by passing the burden of containing emerging threats to regional states, by building coalitions, and/or by directly using its own resources, including military power. Buck-passing is naturally the preferred strategy while direct intervention is the strategy of the last resort. The US used these strategies individually or in combination to fight the Nazi Germany during WWII and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is very likely that the US will be utilizing the same grand strategy against China as the emerging threat to Pax Americana.